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The Art of the Medieval Church Treasury:

Liturgical Objects



The Dream of the Rood

Lo! I will tell the dearest of dreams
That I dreamed in the midnight when mortal men
were slunk in slumber. Me-seemed I saw
A wondrous Tree towering in air,
Most shining of crosses compassed with light. -5
Brightly that beacon was gilded with gold;
Jewels adorned it fair at the foot,
Five on the should-beam, blazing in splendor.
Through all creation the angels of God
Beheld it shining - no cross of shame! -10
Holy spirits gazed on its gleaming,
Men upon earth and all this creation.
Wondrous that Tree, that Token of triumph,
And I a transgressor soiled with my sins!
I gazed on the Rood arrayed in glory, -15
Shining in beauty and gilded with gold,
The Cross of the Saviour beset with gems.
But through the gold-work out gleamed a token
Of the ancient evil of sinful men
Where the Rood on its right side once sweat blood. -20
Saddened and rueful, smitten with terror
At the wondrous vision, I saw the Cross
Swiftly varying vesture and hue,
Now wet and stained with the Blood outwelling,
Now fairly jewelled with gold and gems. -25
Then, as I lay there, long I gazed
In rue and sadness on my Saviour's Tree,
Of all woods worthiest, speaking these words:
'Long years ago (well yet I remember) -30
They hewed me down on the edge of the holt,
Severed my trunk; strong foemen took me,
For a spectacle wrought me, a gallows for rogues.
High on their shoulders they bore me to hilltop,
Fastened me firmly, an army of foes! -35
'Then I saw the King of all mankind
In brave mood hastening to mount upon me.
Refuse I dared not, nor bow nor break,
Though I felt earth's confines shudder in fear;
All foes I might fell, yet still I stood fast. -40
'Then the young Warrior, God, the All-Wielder,
Put off his raiment, steadfast and strong;
With lordly mood in the sight of many
He mounted the Cross to redeem mankind.
When the hero clasped me I trembled in terror, -45
But I dared not bow me nor bend to earth;
I must need stand fast. Upraised as the Rood
I held the High King, the Lord of Heaven.
I dared not bow! with black nails driven
Those sinners pierced me; the prints are clear, -50
The open wounds. I dared injure none.
They mocked us both. I was wet with blood
From the Hero's side when He sent forth His spirit.
'Many a bale I bore on that hill-side
Seeing the Lord in agony outstretched. -55
Black darkness covered with clouds God's body,
That radiant splendor. Shadow went forth
Wan under heaven; all creation wept
Bewailing the King's death. Christ was on the Cross.
'Then many came quickly, faring from far, -60
Hurrying to the Prince. I beheld it all.
Sorely smitten with sorrow in meekness I bowed
To the hands of men. From His heavy and bitter pain
They lifted Almighty God. Those warriors left me
Standing bespattered with blood; I was wounded with spears. -65
Limb-weary they laid me down, they stood at His head,
Looked on the Lord of Heaven as he lay there at rest
From His bitter ordeal all forspent. In sight of His slayers
They made Him a sepulchre carved from the shining stone;
Therein laid the Lord of triumph. At evening tide -70
Sadly they sand their dirges and wearily turned away
From their Lordly Prince; there He lay all still and alone.
'There at our station a long time we stood
Sorrowfully weeping after the wailing of men
Had died away. The corpse grew cold, -75
The fair life-dwelling. Down to earth
Men hacked and felled us, a grievous fate!
They dug a pt and buried us deep.
But there God's friends and followers found me
And graced me with treasure of silver and gold. -80
'Now may you learn, O man beloved,
The bitter sorrows that I have borne,
The work of caitiffs. But the time is come
That men upon earth and through all creation
Show me honour and bow to this sign. -85
On me a while God's Son once suffered;
Now I tower under heaven in glory attired
With healing for all that hold me in awe.
Of old I was once the most woeful of tortures,
Most hateful to all men, till I opened for them -90
The True Way of Life. Lo! the Lord of glory,
The warden of heaven, above all wood
Has glorified me as Almighty God
Has honored His Mother, even Mary herself,
Over all womankind in the eyes of men. -95
'Now I give you bidding, O man beloved,
Reveal this Vision to the sons of men,
And clearly tell of the Tree of glory
Whereon God suffered for man's many sins
And the evil that Adam once wrought of old. -100
'Death He suffered, but our Saviour rose
By virtue of His great might as a help to men.
He ascended to heaven. But hither again
He shall come unto earth to seek mankind,
The Lord Himself on the Say of Doom, -105
Almighty God with His angel hosts.
And then will He judge, Who has power of judgment,
To each man according as here on earth
In this fleeting life he shall win reward.
'Nor there may any be free from fear -110
hearing the words which the Wielder shall utter.
He shall ask before many: Where is the man
Who would taste bitter death as He did on the Tree?
And all shall be fearful and few shall know
What to say unto Christ. But none at His coming -115
Shall need to fear if he bears in his breast
This best of symbols; and every soul
From the ways of earth through the Cross shall come
To heavenly glory, who would dwell with God."
Then with ardent spirit and earnest zeal, -120
Companionless, lonely, I prayed to the Cross.
My soul was fain of death. I had endured
Many an hour of longing. It is my life's hope
That I may turn to this Token of Triumph,
I above all men, and revere it well. -125
This is my heart's desire, and all my hope
Waits on the Cross. In this world now
I have few powerful friends; they have fared hence
Away from these earthly gauds seeking the King of glory,
Dwelling now with the High Father in heaven above, -130
Abiding in rapture. Each day I dream
Of the hour when the Cross of my Lord, whereof here on earth
I once had vision, from this fleeting life may fetch me
And bring me where is great gladness and heavenly bliss,
Where the people of God are planted and stablished for ever -135
In joy everlasting. There may it lodge me
Where I may abide in glory knowing bliss with the saints.
May the Lord befriend me who on earth of old
Once suffered on the Cross for the sins of men.
He redeemed us, endowed us with life and a heavenly home. -140
Therein was hope renewed with blessing and bliss
For those who endured the burning. In that great deed
God's Son was triumphant, possessing power and strength!
Almighty, Sole-Ruling He came to the kingdom of God
Bringing a host of souls to angelic bliss, -145
To join the saints who abode in the splendour of glory,
When the Lord, Almighty God, came again to His throne.

Trans. by Charles W. Kennedy



Abbot Suger (1081-1151), De Administratione

Abbot Suger should play a central role in any course on medieval art. As the Abbot of the French Royal Abbey of St. Denis, north of Paris, Suger was responsible for the redesign of the west facade and the east end of the church. We will examine these additions to St. Denis later in the course in the context of the beginnings of Gothic architecture. Suger also left us two texts pertaining to his contributions to St. Denis: De Administratione and De Consecratione. Suger's discussions of his additions are relevant to our discussion of the art of the medieval church treasury. Compare the following description of the Golden Crucifix to the poem, The Dream of the Rood. Alison Stones presents an excellent overview of the treasury of St. Denis.

Of the Golden Crucifix


We should have insisted with all the devotion of our mind --had we but had the power-- that the adorable, life-giving cross, the health-bringing banner of the eternal victory of Our Saviour (of which the Apostle says: "But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ [Galatians 6:14]"), should be adorned all the more gloriously as the sign of the Son of Man, appearing in the sky at the utmost danger, is glorious not only to men but also to the very angels; and we should have perpetually greeted it with the Apostle Andrew: "Hail Cross, which art dedicated in the body of Christ and adorned with His members even as with pearls." But since we could not do as we wished, we wished to do as best we could, and strove to bring it about by the grace of God. Therefore we searched around everywhere by ourselves and by our agents for an abundance of precious pearls and gems, preparing as precious a supply of gold and gems for so important an embellishment as we could find, and convoked the most experienced artists from diverse parts. They would with diligent and patient labor glorify the venerable cross on its reverse side by the admirable beauty of those gems; and on its front --that is to say in the sight of the sacrificing priest-- they would show the adorable image of our Lord the Savior, suffering, as it were, even now in remembrance of His Passion....
We applied to the perfection of so sacred an ornament not only these but also a great and expensive supply of other gems and large pearls. We remember, if memory serves, to have put in about eighty marks of refined gold. And barely within two years were we able to have completed, through several goldsmiths from Lorraine -- at times five, at other times seven-- the pedestal adorned with the Four Evangelists; and the pillar upon which the sacred image stands, enameled with exquisite workmanship, and [on it] the history of the Savior, with the testimonies of the allegories from the Old Testament indicated, and the capital above looking up, with its images, to the Death of the Lord. Hastening to honor and extol even more highly the embellishment of so important and sacred a liturgical object, the mercy of our Savior brought to us our Lord Pope Eugenius for the celebration of holy Easter (as is the custom of Roman Pontiffs, when sojourning in Gaul, in honor of the sacred apostolate of the blessed Denis, which we have also experienced with his predecessors, Callixtus and Innocent); and he solemnly consecrated the aforesaid crucifix on that day. Out of the title "The True Cross of the Lord Surpassing All and Every Pearl" he assigned to it a portion fro his chapel; and publicly, in the presence of all, he anathematized, by the sword of the blessed Peter and by the sword of the Holy Ghost, whosoever would raise his hand against it in reckless temerity; and we ordered this ban to be inscribed at the foot of the cross.


We hastened to adorn the Main Altar of the blessed Denis where there was only one beautiful and precious frontal panel from Charles the Bald, the third Emperor; for at this [altar] we had been offered to the monastic life. We had it all encased, putting up golden panels on either side and adding a fourth, even more precious one; so that the whole altar would appear golden all the way round. On either side, we installed there the two candlesticks of King Louis, the son of Philip, of twenty marks of gold, lest they might be stolen on some occasion; we added hyacinths, emeralds, and sundry precious gems; and we gave orders carefully to look out for others to be added further. The verses on these [panels] are these.

On the right side:
' Abbot Suger has set up these altar panels
In addition to that which King Charles has given before.
Make worthy the unworthy through thy indulgence, O Virgin Mary
May the fountain of mercy cleanse the sins both of the King
and the Abbot.'

On the left side:
"If an impious person should despoil this excellent altar
May he perish, deservedly damned, associated with Judas."

But the rear panel, of marvelous workmanship and lavish sumptousness (for the barbarian artists were even more lavish than ours), we ennobled with chased relief work equally admirable for its form as for its material, so that certain people might be able to say: "The workmanship surpassed the material." Much of what had been acquired and more of such ornaments of the church as were afraid of losing --for instance, a golden chalice that was curtailed of its foot and several other things-- we ordered to be fastened there. And because the diversity of the materials [such as] gold, gems, and pearls is not easily understood by the mute perception of sight without a description, we have seen to it that this work, which is intelligible only to the literate, which shines with the radiance of delighted allegories, be set down in writing. Also we have affixed verses expounding the matter so that the [allegories] might be more clearly understood:

"Crying out with a loud voice, the mob acclaims Christ: 'Osanna.'
The true Victim offered at the Lord's Supper has carried all men.
He Who saves all men on the Cross hastens to carry the cross.
The promise which Abraham obtains for his seed is sealed by the flesh of Christ, Melchizedek offers a libation because Abraham triumphs over the enemy.
They who seek Christ with the Cross bear the cluster of grapes upon a staff.

Often we contemplate, out of sheer affection for the church our mother, these different ornaments both new and old; and when we behold how that wonderful cross of St. Eloy --together with the smaller ones--- and that incomparable ornament commonly called the 'Crest' are placed upon the golden altar, then I say sighing deeply in my heart: "Every precious stone was thy covering, the sardius, the topaz, and the jasper, the chrysolite, and the emerald [Exekiel 28:13]." To those who know the properties of precious stones it becomes evident, to their utter astonishment, that none is absent from the number of these (with the only exception of the carbuncle), but that they abound most copiously. Thus, when --out of my delight in the beauty of the house of God-- the loveliness of the many-colored gems has called me away from external cares, and worthy meditation has induced me to reflect, transferring that which is material to that which is immaterial, on the diversity of the sacred virtues: then it seems to me that I see myself dwelling, as it were, in some strange region of the universe which neither exists entirely in the slime of the earth nor entirely in the purity of Heaven; and that, by the grace of God, I can be transported from this inferior to that higher world in an anagogical manner.

[Inscription on the bronze doors made by Suger for the Abbey of St. Denis]
Whoever thou art, if thou seekest to extol the glory of these doors,
Marvel not at the gold and the expense but at the craftsmanship
of the work.
Bright is the noble work; but, being nobly bright, the work
Should brighten the minds, so that they may travel, through the
true lights,
To the True Light where Christ is the true door.
In what manner it be inherent in this world the golden door defines:
The dull mind rises to truth through that which is material
And, in seeing this light, is resurrected from its former submersion.


Theophilus, Diversarum Artium Schedula, preface to Book III:

The most renowned of the Prophets, David --of whom the Lord had prescience, and whom he predestined before mundane ages, and whom, on account of the simplicity and humility of his mind, He elected, after his own heart, and placed over the people of his choice, and established with his Holy Spirit, that he might nobly and wisely regulate the conduct appertaining to so great a name -- concentrating within himself all the power of his soul in the love of his Maker, uttered these words amongst others: 'Lord, I have loved the beauty of thy house,' And although it was lawful that a man of so much authority and of such capacious intellect should call house the habitation of heavenly worship in which God presides in ineffable brightness over the hymns of choirs of angels, towards which he himself yearned with all his soul, saying, 'One thing have I desired of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life;' or, as the refuge of a devoted breast and most pure heart, in which God truly dwelt, of which asylum an intense desire again prays forth, 'Renew a right spirit within me, O Lord' --yet it is certain that he strongly desired the embellishment of the material house of God, which is the place of prayer.
For almost all the treasures in gold, silver, brass, and iron of the house, whose founder he himself with such an ardent desire coveted to be made, yet of which he was not worthy, on account of the frequent effusion of human, although hostile, blood, he committed to his son Solomon. For he had read in Exodus that God had given command to Moses for the construction of the tabernacle, and had selected by name the masters of the works, and that he had filled them with the spirit of wisdom and intelligence and science, in every knowledge, for inventing and executing work in gold and silver, and brass, gems, wood, and in art of all kinds; and he had discerned by means of pious reflection, that God complacently beheld decoration of this kind, which He was appointing to be constructed under the teaching and authority of His Holy Spirit; and he believed that without his inspiration no one could mould any work of this kind. Therefore, most beloved son, you will not doubt, but believe with an entire faith, that the Spirit of God has filled your heart when you have adorned his temple with so much beauty, and with such variety of work; and that you may not chance to fear, I can prove, with clear reasoning, that whatsoever you may be able to learn, understand, or invent in the arts, is ministered to you as a gift of the sevenfold Spirit.
Through the spirit of wisdom you know that all created things proceed from God, and that without Him nothing exists. Through the spirit of intelligence you have acquired the faculty of genius, in whatever order, in what variety, in what proportion, you may choose to apply to your varied work. Through the spirit of counsel you do not hide the talent conceded to you faithfully expound to those desirous to learn. Through the spirit perserverance you shake off all lethargy of sloth, and whatever diligence you commence, you carry through with full vigor to the completion. Through the spirit of science accorded to you, you rule with genius from an abounding heart, and from that with which you entirely overflow you bestow with the confidence of a well-stored mind for the common good. Through the spirit of piety you regulate the nature, the destination, the pious consideration, the price of the fee, that the vice of avarice or covetousness may not steal in. Through the spirit of the fear of God you meditate that you can do nothing from yourself, but you consider that you possess, or will, nothing unconceded by God; but by believing, confiding and giving thanks, you ascribe to divine compassion whatever you have learned, or what you are, or what you may be.
Animated, dearest son, by these covenants with the virtues, you have confidently approached the house of God, have decorated with the utmost beauty ceilings or walls with various work, and, showing forth with different colors a likeness of the paradise of God, glowing with various flowers, and verdant with herbs and leaves, and cherishing the lives of the saints with crowns of various merit, you have, after a fashion, shown to beholders everything in creation praising God, its Creator, and have caused them to proclaim him admirable in all his works. Nor is the eye of man even able to decide upon which work it may first fix its glance; if it beholds the ceilings, they glow like draperies; if it regards the walls, there is the appearance of paradise; if it marks the abundance of light from the windows, it admires the inestimable beauty of the glass and the variety of the most costly work. But if perchance a faithful mind should behold a representation of our Lord's passion expressed in drawing, it is penetrated with compunction; if it beholds how many rewards of eternal life they have received, it quickly induces the observance of a better life; if it regards how much rejoicing how much rejoicing is in heaven, and how much suffering in the flames of hell, it is animated by hope for its good actions, and is struck with fear by the consideration of its sins.


We also had painted, by the hands of many masters sought out in various nations, a splendid variety of new windows below and above, from the first in the chevet representing the tree of Jesse to the one over the principal door of the entrance. One of these, urging us onward from the material to the immaterial, shows the apostle Paul turning a mill and the prophets carrying sacks to the mill. The accompanying verse says,

By working the mill, Paul, you take the flour from the bran.
You make known the inner meaning of Moses' law.
From so many grains is made the true bread without bran,
The perpetual food of men and angels.

In the same window, where the veil is removed from Moses' face, it says,

What Moses veils, the doctrine of Christ unveils.
Those who despoil Moses bare the Law.

In the same window, under the ark of the covenant,

From the ark of the covenant is established the altar of Christ.
There, by a greater covenant, life wishes to die.

Also in the same window, where the lion and lamb unseal the book,

He who is the great God, lion and lamb, unseals the book.
The lamb or lion becomes flesh joined to God.

In another window, where the pharaoh's daughter finds Moses in the basket,

Moses in the basket is that child
Whom the church, the royal maiden, nurses with holy mind.

In the same window, where the Lord appeared to Moses in the burning bush,

Just as the bush is seen to burn yet is not consumed,
So he who is full of the divine fire burns yet is not consumed.

Also in the same window, where the pharaoh and his horsemen are submerged in the sea,

What baptism does to the good,
A like form but an unlike cause does to the pharaoh's army.

Also in the same window, where Moses raises the bronze serpent,

Just as the bronze serpent slays all serpents,
So Christ raised on the cross slays his enemies.

In the same window, where Moses receives the Law on the mountain,

The law having been given to Moses,
The grace of Christ comes to its aid.
Grace gives life, the letter kills.